Jesse Marsch won two MLS Cups and a U.S. Open Cup in his first two years in the league with D.C. United, then was traded to the expansion Chicago Fire and probably figured it would be a long time before he raised another trophy.
It took exactly one season. In 1998, the Fire won both titles in its first year in the league.
We bring this up now because Marsch sees a lot of similarities in that Fire team and his Red Bulls squad. And with the Red Bulls heading to Bridgeview, Ill., for a match against the Fire Wednesday night at Toyota Park, memories of those days came flooding back at training on Monday.
“There are similarities here in a sense that it’s a really good group of guys,” Marsch said. “They’re committed to each other in all the right ways. It’s a very talented group, and now for me it’s been building in some of that competitive juices and their ability to battle every day. We’ve gotten way better in that as the year’s gone on. It’s helped us get more results and we want to continue to build that as part of our identity.”
Marsch has also instilled a higher and more competitive level of training, something he experienced in Chicago under then-coach Bob Bradley, and the fitness and sharpness that has come from all that work has made the Red Bulls a team nobody looks forward to facing.
“You know what I remember the most about that group? Training,” Marsch recalled. “Training was like a bloodbath and every day was guys killing each other. And that’s why I say the competitive energy of that team was unlike anything I’ve ever really sensed. You would have thought that we hated each other, but in the end we actually loved each other. But we didn’t train like it.”
And that led to great things.
“It was a really special year in terms of the group of players that came together,” Marsch said. “The veteran guys that we had, specifically some of them from Europe, guys like Peter Nowak and Lubos Kubic coming in and being really good leaders, along with a really hungry group of young guys who were anxious to prove themselves, meant that you could sense a lot of positive, competitive energy in the group right away.
“It was just about Bob now ironing out some of the wrinkles with how we were going to play, what our formation was going to be, and all those details, and as the season went on you could just feel the confidence of our group grow and grow and grow. And then to win the double in an expansion season was just ridiculous really when you think about it. It was a special time, it was a special group and everybody contributed in a big way.”
That was a long time ago and the 2015 edition of the Fire is not enjoying such success. Last among the 10 teams in the Eastern Conference with a 6-13-5 record, the Fire has scored just 27 goals, second-fewest in Major League Soccer, while the second-place Red Bulls (11-6-6) are tied with the Colorado Rapids for the fewest goals allowed, with 25.
On paper, the game seems like a mismatch, but Marsch knows better.
“We have to go to Chicago (and) know they’re a better team than their record says,” Marsch said. “A lot of their attacking statistics show that they actually lead the league in shots per game. There’s a lot more to this team than necessarily their results. We’re going to make sure we go on the field on Wednesday in a place where we’ve never won and in a place that’s not easy. No game we’ve had on the road has been easy, we know that we have to earn every inch, but we’re going after it.”
And that leads us to the lineup. Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron are getting closer to being 90-minute players, which leaves Marsch with some tough decisions. This could be a good game to get both a start before the showdown with D.C. United Sunday night at Red Bull Arena.
“(Shaun) did so well at the start that obviously everybody’s thinking that he’s going to make that kind of impact every time he steps on the field,” the coach said. “He’s been good. He could have a goal (and) he could have had a couple more assists. In training, he keeps getting fitter and fitter. I think he’s capable of going close to 90 now.
"It’s just a matter of evaluating what that means for the team. Shaun’s committed to be here for all the right reasons, and even though he hasn’t gotten a start yet it hasn’t affected any way that he’s doing anything. And that’s what’s important. Everyone that we bring here is committed to the group.”
With both new players being midfielders, and with the high-pressure style the Red Bulls play, and with the fitness level the team needs to accomplish that, having an abundance of midfielders is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
“It’s a good problem to have as a coach to have a lot of different options in different spots on the field, and right now I consider us a very deep team,” Marsch said. “We’ve had to call on a lot of different guys to step up at different moments, but that’s always a good thing to have as a coach. Now it’s just about each guy continuing to understand what his role is, and that even if his name is not called on the day, that he’s ready to go, so for the most part that’s been really good all year, and that’s going to become even more important as the games progress in the season and as the games become more important.
“We have depth in the middle parts of the field and we know we have depth in the wide spots. And the way we play we demand a lot out of those guys to be aggressive on the move and do a lot of running, so that’s why we have the depth there, to use all the different players and all the weapons in all the right ways and know that we’ll require rotation, and when they step on the field to give everything that they have.”
Marsch said defender Kemar Lawrence, who has been dealing with a hamstring issue, will sit out the Fire game but should be ready for the match against D.C. United. That should give Anthony Wallace, who has been impressive in Lawrence’s place at left back, another start.